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Antique Typewriters on the Come Back!Wayne Pierce
I still have a manual Smith Corona typewriter and I don’t know how I ever had the strength in my fingers to produce anything on that machine.
(EUGENE, Ore. ) - Hang onto your old typewriters because they are coming back. After whistle blower Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA’s massive spying program, computer users worldwide were faced with the dilemma of knowing that everything they did on the Internet was an open book and being monitored by the US government.
Assuming American leaders are capable of being embarrassed, most embarrassing for Obama was when Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel learned that the US government had been tapping her cell phone conversations for six years. Other government leaders joined in this outcry against the NSA’s spying on them and their governments.
In one of her responses about US government spying, Chancellor Merkel told the world that her secret service people were returning to the use of manual typewriters for communication.
I found this exciting because I learned to type on a manual portable typewriter when I was nineteen. Though I am much faster on a computer keyboard, I find the mechanical feel and sound of old manual typewriters intriguing. It is similar to the difference between modern cars with automatic transmissions and the manual shift transmissions in the old Volkswagens.
Though most serious computer users have been aware of hackers and spying for a long time, Snowden’s revelations about the extent of US spying, their storage of emails and phone calls, and how this data is being mined, has aroused new concerns. This, along with Chancellor Merkel’s comments has rekindled an interest in typewriters and I’ve learned that markets for old typewriters have been brisk. Of course, whenever there is an increase in demand, there are those individuals ready to take advantage of the situation.
With old typewriters that have been sitting around for years, whether in a shop inventory or at our homes, the oil dries out and becomes gummy, they collect dust, and things don’t work so well. To get them working properly again they must be taken to a typewriter repair shop.
Old Technology in a New World
I am writing this article because I learned the hard way that one must be very careful when choosing someone to do what these shops call cleaning, oiling, and adjusting.
While working for IBM, I often worked at home and usually owned their latest model Selectrics. These machines are built heavy and made to last forever. They are still considered the workhorses among typewriters.
Selectrics experienced an increase in popularity some years ago when computer users were becoming aware that their private information they often shared via the Internet was not totally secure. Even the best security systems are not safe from hackers, as governments and corporations are discovering.
After reading about Edward Snowden’s leaks about US spying on virtually everyone, I got out my Selectric that I had not used for a couple of years. When I tried to use it the carriage was reluctant to move due gummy oil and I knew it needed cleaning.
At the time, I did not know if anyone still worked on these machines so started searching the Internet. I found the website of a man in Ashland, Oregon who claimed to have great experience with Selectrics. I called him and he told me he worked on all types of typewriters, but specialized in IBM Selectrics.
He claimed that he had helped develop Selectrics while working for IBM. Where I got led down the rosy path was when he told me he was the last man in the US that worked on Selectrics and people shipped him their machines from all over the US. His sales pitch plus the fact we were fellow IBMers convinced me that I should take my machine to him for standard maintenance.
I have friends in Ashland, so decided to drive down and drop it off at his place, stay over with friends, and pick it up a couple days later before heading home.
When I arrived at the repairman’s home, he checked it over and confirmed the oil had become gummy and the machine needed cleaning, oiling, and adjusting. We then had a great time talking about our careers at IBM. I left my machine with him convinced that when I picked it up it would be as good as new.
A couple days later I returned to his place to pick up the machine. I would soon learn why he wanted to sit and talk more about our days at IBM. When I finally insisted I needed to embark on my drive back to Eugene, he invited me to his kitchen where my Selectric was sitting on the counter.
When he handed me the bill and I noticed he wanted $395 I was stunned. He had replaced only one small part that he said cost $4.50. The rest was for cleaning, oiling, and adjusting. If you know the Selectrics, they do not use the typical array of keys and moving parts, but have only a type ball that rotates into position for each character. It’s actually quite fascinating. So a Selectric should be the easiest of all typewriters to clean and oil.
When I told him I had expected to pay a maximum of $200 and could not believe his charges, he told me that this was his standard fee and people all over the US were shipping him their machines. Shipping expense alone were almost $100. I thought maybe I was out of touch with reality so agreed to pay but did not have enough cash with me. He told me I could send him a check when I got home.
The first thing I did when I got home was search for office machine shops that repaired typewriters. Contrary to what the man in Ashland told me, every shop I called said they refurbished IBM Selectric and most brands of typewriters. The fees quoted for refurbishing Selectrics ranged from $85 to $120. Once more I proved to myself that making commitments before shopping around can be expensive.
Selectrics in decent condition can bring $300 to $500 so in order to recoup my money I decided to try to sell it. First I would test it to make sure it was working okay.
The Memorable Efforts of Restoration
After spending all that money for it to be fully restored, I wanted to see my machine perform. Oops! When I turned it on the carriage hung up, which was the reason I had taken it to get fixed. After turning the machine on and off a few times it started working, but there were new problems.
Each time I hit the space bar the machine made an annoying chirp, so typing a sentence resulted in a chirp chirp chirp… There was also a couple annoying buzzes coming from inside the machine. I had never experienced these problems prior to taking it to him.
This was not a machine I could use and no one would buy a chirping IBM Selectric. I knew if I called him he would tell me to bring it back, but spending another three hours of driving each way to Ashland was out of the question. Why was I even doing this when I rarely use a typewriter? It was mostly for sentimental reasons.
I wrote him a letter explaining the problems I had experienced with the machine and included a check for the full amount. I explained that due to the defects, I no longer wanted the machine and was giving it to Goodwill. He cashed my check but did not call or write back to apologize or offer to fix the problems. Perhaps dealing with long distant customers has its advantages for him.
That was my experience dealing with a man who claimed to be the only man in the US who could work on IBM Selectrics. The message here of course is to shop around and compare prices. It sounds so simple now.
Though my wallet and feelings were hurt by my experience with my Selectric, it did not dampen my interest in old typewriters, not necessarily to own, but to observe their intricate mechanisms and the fact they can still be cleaned up and made to operate.
While in Portland last week I stopped at Ace Typewriter & Equipment. This shop is located on Lombard Street in north Portland. Dennis and Mathew McCormack are father and son and have been in business since 1961. It’s a grubby old place with ancient typewriters on shelves everywhere you look.
The younger man told me that he has a basement full of typewriters at his home. Among the typewriters on the shelf waiting to be refurbished were three IBM Selectrics. I asked how much they charged for normal cleaning, oiling, and adjusting and was told they charge a flat rate of $85.
He smiled and said that they could probably charge more, but it only takes them a few hours. He said the Selectric business is hot right now and one man in Los Angeles was charging $500 for the same work. Though I did not discuss my experience, I felt somewhat relieved knowing I could have paid more for mine.
I had a great time talking with the son at Ace Typewriter. He knew the history of the old typewriters and talked about he and his father’s drawers full of used typewriter parts categorized for various machines.
He was aware of Chancellor Merkel’s comments about her secret service agents returning to manual typewriters and said this was helping antique typewriter sales. He pointed out one manual typewriter that he said the Germans once preferred because spies could not decipher the sound of individual keys. He said on most machines pickup devices could detect the sounds of various keys, thus allowing spies to intercept their messages.
When I hear such things I wonder why people don’t use pencils and paper. Why do all the messages have to be typed? This seemed much more challenging than the NSA’s tapping into Internet and phone systems. I should have told him to warn Chancellor Merkel about this.
I still have a manual Smith Corona typewriter similar to the one I learned to type on. After years with my Apple wireless keyboard, I don’t know how I ever had the strength in my fingers to produce anything on that machine. I also have an IBM Selectric III in ruby red that the man at Ace Typewriter tells me is rare and worth more than other colors.
Sometimes I think my fascination with old manual typewriters is a bit weird, but then I see some proud owner driving his old manual shift Volkswagen. Maybe I should mention that after my gas engine lawnmower died, I donated it to the repair shop and bought a manual mower like we had when I was a kid. It is quiet, easy to push, and doesn’t burn gas.
I found the sound of the blades rotating to be pleasant as it stirred up memories of my youth. A great advantage is the aerobic workout it provides. I probably won’t go back to using a manual typewriter or investing in a Volkswagen, but I sure will use my new manual mower.
Wayne was born in a small farm town in California's San Joaquin Valley. At age ten, he moved with his family to San Jose, California, which at the time had a population of 50,000 and was surrounded by orchards--mostly prunes. At age twenty, he joined IBM, one of the first electronic plants that would evolve into what we know today as Silicon Valley. Most of his college education was acquired through part-time classes while sometimes working ten hours a day. Wayne started on the bottom in the magnetic disk manufacturing facility, which produced the large disks for the earlier IBM computer systems. These magnetically coated disks would evolve into what we know today as hard drives. Wayne's last assignment with IBM was setting up their first inkjet printer lab that became what we know today as the Lexmark printer business. After his retirement from IBM, he wrote human interest stories for a small town newspaper.
You can write to Wayne Pierce at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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